Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: From The President

I came of age during the Watergate era, both literally and politically. In November 1972, helped along by a national law that lowered the voting age in national elections, I stepped into a voting booth in Cranston RI and cast my first vote for president. I voted for Richard Nixon. The Watergate scandal was a gnat buzzing in people's ears, pushed about by a press that hated Nixon. It was not till five months after the election that it erupted to the point where heads rolled, and it was another year and then some before Nixon resigned.

Out of this scandal was the fight over Nixon's presidential papers. The courts wanted them. The press wanted them. Defendants wanted them--even more so than prosecutors in some cases. Yet history had said that a president's papers from his years in office were his own, to be done with as he saw fit. Destroy them, put them in a library, suppress them, edit them. They were his. The need for Nixon's papers caused a long legal battle that was not resolved until 1987. The papers became available in 1988.

Bruce Oudes began the process of going through the released Nixon papers, which went into his book From The President: Richard Nixon's Secret Files. Oudes' title is almost yellow journalism. The files were not secret because they all contain salacious material that showed what bad dudes Nixon and his cronies were. They were "secret" simply because Nixon thought they belonged to him, as those of his predecessors had belonged to them. But Congress passed laws, the courts upheld them, and Oudes and countless like him got the papers.

The lengthy Introduction to the book is excellent. Oudes describes the fight for the papers and how the national mood was pretty much to give nothing to Nixon. Oudes describes how the files amounted to 1.5 million pages, which he culled through to produce a book of 640 pages. It was a massive work, and obviously everything could not be included. With such abridgement, achieving a fair balance is difficult if not impossible. The editor's prejudices must show through.

The papers focus heavily on Chuck Colson and the political maneuverings he orchestrated. In fact, the papers as a whole are mostly political. A small minority deal strictly with governing. The China trip, for instance, is covered in memos that discuss the political ramifications of the trip but not many that discuss what that trip would mean for the world and for US interests. The years 1973 and 1974 are under-represented, 1974 badly so. It was as if the Administration quit producing memos on January 1, 1973.

Despite these faults, I found the reading fascinating. It was sort of like the business correspondence I read every day. Seeing how the Administration sought to manipulate the press was eye-opening. The reaction to a bad press consumed many memos. The Vietnam War was the backdrop to everything, but the memos described the happenings on the home front, not the battle front.

I was disturbed to see White House employees--Coulson, Buchanan, Haldeman, and others spending time producing memos purely about politics and the 1970 and 1972 elections. I was not pleased to see how my tax dollars (well, mostly Dad's tax dollars) go to politics rather than governing. Perhaps it is not possible to achieve a complete separation of staff so that some work on politics, some work on governing, and each is paid by monies from an appropriate source. Still, it was bothersome.

It's a good book, and well worth the $2.00 I paid for it used at our local thrift store. If you have a chance to find it, read it. The memos themselves are unfiltered history--original source material--though of course the selection of the memos make the book a highly filtered flawed history. This one is not a keeper. It will be in the next garage sale, where I hope to make back half my investment.

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